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  • In Memoriam: Hans Blumenberg (1920–1996), An Unended Quest
  • Elías José Palti

At 76, after a long intellectual career spanning more than thirty years, first as Professor of Philosophy at Giessel, then at Bochum, and finally at Münster until his retirement in 1985, Hans Blumenberg has died.1 He leaves behind an incredibly vast oeuvre2 covering the most diverse subjects, from an interpretation of Bach’s The Passion of St Matthew to the history of different terms, concepts, and metaphors (such as shipwreck, the book, and the cave).3 His three major books—The Legitimacy of the Modern Age (1966), The Genesis of the Copernican World (1975), and Work on Myth (1979)—are already classics and constitute true landmarks in the contemporary historiography of ideas. Yet so varied and extended an intellectual production revolves around a single concern: the origins and legitimacy of the so-called Modern Age. Moving back and forth from different angles and perspectives toward the same core—as in a prolonged assault—in order to test the different edges and explore all the potential implications of his own inquiring, men and gods, science and myth, from antiquity to the present day, all are invoked in his work for a concerted [End Page 503] attack aimed to shed new light into that enigma called the “Modern Age.” His multifaceted approach is thus only an expression of the multifold nature of his own subject matter.

However, the unity of this quest is more apparent than real. His line of questioning moved progressively from the problem regarding the legitimacy of the modern age to that of its origins and specific nature, and in this very process not only did his approach vary but his very concept of that age changed. Here I will trace the main investigative lines that Blumenberg followed through his three major works4 to uncover how his view of the modern age was modified and became more and more complex over time. I will also show how, in fulfilling his project and in the consequent growing sophistication of his perspective, Blumenberg actually discovered a number of unsuspected problems that derailed him from his original endeavor, forcing him to reformulate some of his conceptual tools, and indeed to redefine the ultimate object of his undertaking.

Modernity and the Problem of Its Legitimacy

The Legitimacy of the Modern Age (1966)5 was first in a trilogy of major works reviewed here. Its title formulates concisely Blumenberg’s original concern. In it he focussed his discussion on the “theory of secularization,” originally formulated by Carl Schmitt in Political Theology (1922) and later developed by Karl Löwith in Meaning and History (1949).

For Löwith there were only two authentically original traditions in Western historical thought: the Ancient (based on the notion of cyclical time) and the Medieval/Modern (founded on the idea of a linear, future-directed pattern of human development).6 The philosophy of history that originated in the eighteenth century is nothing else but a result of the secularization of the eschatological Christian motif of the fall and subsequent redemption. Such a revelation would unmask, according to the author of this theory, the myth of modernity’s origins as representing a radical rupture from its immediate past and the final consecration of the absolute reign of reason. This would deprive modernity of the grounds upon which it legitimizes itself. “Illegitimacy,” then, is here identified with “heterogony” (the lack of authentic, proper sources). “Seen from the point of view of secularization,” remarks Blumenberg, “the false conflict of the medieval and the modern age can be reduced to a single episode in the interruption of the human connection to the cosmos” (28). [End Page 504]

For Blumenberg, on the contrary, “secularization” did not necessarily constitute an anathema. The fact that the notion of “secularization”—originally conceived as merely a descriptive term—came to involve pejorative connotations resulted from the Platonic assumption that a derivative truth is only a degraded form of the primitive, authentic Truth, so that any kind of intellectual acquisition becomes suspect (73). This is not actually the case. In a purely descriptive sense, Blumenberg argued, one can cite almost any philosophy...

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